The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Pocket Box Games

Greg Aleknevicus

June, 2005

As with many, I first gained an interest in games when I was in junior high school. Enthusiasm was high but funds were low and so I was more or less forced to pay special attention to inexpensive games. Fortunately for me, there was the burgeoning field of so-called "microgames". The company Metagaming were arguably the creators of this microgame format but many other companies released similarly packaged games. Some were released in ziplock bags but most came in small cardboard boxes. Very inexpensive but, being somewhat of an aesthete, I was always disappointed with their appearance. These "tuck boxes" (named because you opened and closed them by tucking in one end) were not at all durable—they quickly became dog-eared and ratty looking. The more standard telescoping boxes were more sturdy but too pricey for such inexpensive games. There had to be a more suitable box.

There was and Steve Jackson Games found it.

Their solution was to design and produce their own thin plastic boxes. These were approximately 4.25" x 7.25" x 5/8" in size and were designed so that they could fit in one's pocket. Thus: Pocket Box Games. To my mind this was a brilliant innovation—a standard size box that was durable, attractive and relatively inexpensive. Steve Jackson Games themselves stated it thusly:

This plastic Pocket Box is (we modestly think) the best new idea for game packaging in years. Certainly it is better than the average flimsy cardboard box or plastic bag. It was designed to fit in your hip or coat pocket without crushing. It will also ride in a suitcase, lunch box, etc., without risking total destruction. Like any plastic item, it may be damaged if exposed to intense heat, or shattered if treated roughly in very cold conditions, or vaporized if subjected to a nuclear explosion. Treat it well, though, and it'll last a long time.

If you want to remove the hanger from the top of the box, a sharp knife will do the job.

If you have old mini-games that you'd like to protect in boxes like this, extra Pocket Boxes are available at $2.50 apiece (this includes postage and handling) from SJ Games, Box 18957, Austin, TX 78760.

The original design had clips on the side as an enclosure but apparently there were problems with wear: Since they were repeatedly opened and closed the clips could eventually break. (Personally, I never encountered this problem.) A subsequent design modified this to an internal tab that was much more resistant to wear. (They also increased the depth of the box to 3/4" with this re-design.)

The original enclosure featuring clips.

The improved "clipless" enclosure.

The component quality of the games themselves was something of a mixed bag but it must be remembered that the times were different back in the 1980s. The boards were folded, coated paper rather than mounted cardboard. Obviously size was a restriction for this line but mounted boards were uncommon for most companies. (Avalon Hill was the exception as they had their own hardware for mounting boards.) The counters exhibited good and bad qualities as well. Graphically, I'd say that Undead and the Car Wars releases had the best looking counters of any game of the era. In fact, I think they stand up to today's standard and so they were head and shoulders above everything else 20 years ago. One problem though was that they were not die cut, they were a single sheet of cardboard and you had to cut the counters yourself. Personally, I didn't see what the fuss was all about. Yes, it took a little effort but at least you were assured that the cuts would be clean and accurate. The state of the art in die-cutting was very poor at the time and it was not at all uncommon for a brand new game to have horribly misaligned counters, sometimes to the point that they were unusable. Further, there were usually little "burrs" of cardboard that required clipping or trimming anyway. Another complaint, one that I do agree with, was that the stock the counters were printed on was thin; very thin—equivalent to the thickness of a postcard. Obviously, this made them difficult to handle and much less usable. The obvious solution was to mount them on thicker cardboard prior to cutting but this wasn't always possible since many of the games featured double-sided counters.

Ultimately, there were 16 titles released in the Pocket Box format. (The dates listed in the table below is the year in which the Pocket Box version first appeared. In many cases an earlier, non-Pocket Box version was published.)

Raid On Iran

Designer: Steve Jackson
Date: 1980

Contents:

Early Version - This version has components that are essentially the same as in the ziplock bag version. (The same technique was used in One Page Bulge and Kung Fu 2100.)

  • 21"x32" double sided sheet. This sheet needed to be cut into:
    • 16"x21" map.
    • 12"x21" set of rules.
    • 4"x14" sheet of charts and tables.
  • 2"x3" ziplock bag.
  • 2 sheets with a total of 119 three-colour counters. (The single counter sheet in the ziplock bag edition was cut into two so that it could fit into the Pocket Box.)

Later Version

  • 24pp rulebook.
  • 16"x21" colour map.
  • 1 sheet of 119 three-colour counters.
  • 4"x7" sheet of charts and tables.
  • 2"x3" ziplock bag.

[Details]

The first game ever released by Steve Jackson Games, originally in a ziplock bag format.
 
One Page Bulge

Designer: Steve Jackson
Date: 1980

Contents:

  • 16"x21" double sided sheet.
    This sheet needed to be cut into:
    • 16"x13" map.
    • 8"x11" set of rules.
    • 8"x5" sheet of charts and tables.
  • 1 sheet of 112 three-colour counters. (61 German, 51 Allied.)
  • 2"x3" ziplock bag.

[Details]

Originally released in a ziplock bag format with different cover artwork.
 
Kung Fu 2100

Designer: B. Dennis Sustare
Date: 1980

Contents:

  • 21"x32" double sided sheet.
    This sheet needed to be cut into:
    • 10"x16" map.
    • 16"x21" set of rules.
    • 4"x6" combat results table.
    • 2 - 4"x6" Terminator record sheets.
    • 2 - 4"x6" Jelly record sheets.
  • 2"x3" ziplock bag.
  • 1 sheet of 113 three-colour counters. (Note that the game specifies 112 counters and the grid on the counter sheet appears to bear this out at first glance. However, one of the counters includes two separate armored doors so it is intended to be cut in half.)

[Details]

This game was originally published in Space Gamer #30 and was the result of a contest in issue #27: design a game related product/story based on a picture! Perhaps the most unusual origin of a game I've ever heard of. Also released in a ziplock bag format.
 
Car Wars

Designer: Steve Jackson / Chad Irby
Date: 1981

Contents:

  • 24pp rulebook.
  • 1 sheet of 103 full-colour counters.
  • 16"x21" uncut paper sheet featuring charts, tables, forms & map sections.
  • 2"x3" ziplock bag.

[Details]

Originally released in a ziplock bag format. Until the release of the role playing game GURPS in 1986, Car Wars was Steve Jackson Games' "bread and butter". There were numerous expansions and supplements including three in the Pocket Box line (see below). Different versions and editions have been published over the years incorporating various rule changes. A magazine, Autoduel Quarterly, was published from Spring, 1983 until Summer, 1992.
 
Undead

Designer: Steve Jackson
Date: 1981

Contents:

  • 24pp rulebook.
  • 2"x3" ziplock bag.
  • 21"x16" full-colour sheet.
  • 1 sheet of 112 full-colour, single-sided counters.

[Details]

Originally released in a ziplock bag format.
 
Sunday Drivers / Crash City

Designer: Aaron Allston / Stefan Jones
Date: 1982

Contents:

  • 24pp rulebook.
  • 1 sheet of 160 full-colour counters.
  • 2 - 21"x32" map sections.
  • 2"x3" ziplock bag.
  • Crash City version also included a notification slip explaining why the rulebook was titled "Sunday Drivers".

[Details]

Originally appeared in Space Gamer #50. This was an expansion for Car Wars that added rules and components for playing in a city environment. Originally released under the name Sunday Drivers and later released as Crash City.
 
Illuminati

Designer: Steve Jackson
Date: 1982

Contents:

  • 24pp rulebook.
  • 54 cards.
  • 1 sheet of 224 money chits.
  • 1 ziplock bag.

[Details]

This original version featured small (1.625"x2.5") black and white, uncoated cards. A later boxed version incorporating the first two expansions (see below) was released in 1987 and featured full-sized, coated cards (and minor reworking of the artwork). Yet another version was released in 1999 that featured full-colour cards and all new artwork. A third expansion was released in a ziplock bag version but was not included in subsequent versions of the game. (This third expansion has recently been re-released as Illuminati: Brainwash.) Finally, there was also a collectible card version of Illuminati (subtitled New World Order) that featured significant changes.
 
Ogre

Designer: Steve Jackson
Date: 1982

Contents:

  • 24pp rulebook. (16pp rulebook plus 8pp recordsheet/tables.)
  • 8.75"x14" map. (Note: Incorrectly described as 10"x14" on back of box description.)
  • 112 backprinted, black and white counters.
  • 2"x3" ziplock bag.

[Details]

Ogre is arguably the original microgame and was originally released by Metagaming in 1977. There have been a number of different versions including a deluxe edition in 1987. (Note that this should not be confused with Ogre Miniatures.) In addition to G.E.V. (see below), a number of supplements and expansions were published including a computer version (by Origin Systems). A recent edition included both Ogre and G.E.V. in a single package.
 
G.E.V.

Designer: Steve Jackson
Date: 1982

Contents:

  • 24pp rulebook (including 4pp of charts and tables).
  • 2"x3" ziplock bag.
  • 14"x16" full-colour map.
  • 1 Sheet of 112 double-sided counters.

[Details]

G.E.V. was the "sequel" game to Ogre and expanded on the original concept by adding further terrain rules, infantry overruns and additional units. In fact, G.E.V. should actually be regarded as the main game with Ogre being a specialized scenario.
 
Truck Stop

Designer: Steve Jackson
Date: 1983

Contents:

  • 24pp rulebook.
  • 1 sheet of 37 full-colour counters.
  • 21"x32" mapsheet.
  • 2"x3" ziplock bag.

[Details]

Another Car Wars expansion, this one including rules for all manner of heavy trucks and trailers.
 
Illuminati Expansion Set #1

Designer: Steve Jackson
Date: 1983

Contents:

  • 8"x14" rulesheet.
  • 27 cards.
  • 1 sheet of 224 money chits.
  • 1 ziplock bag.
  • 2 Bavarian Illuminati membership cards. (Note: the box and component list incorrectly state that there is only a single card.)

[Details]

There were three expansions for Illuminati, the first two of which (see below) were also released in the Pocket Box format. For the most part, these simply introduced new cards and have been (more or less) included in subsequent re-issues of the game.
 
Illuminati Expansion Set #2

Designer: Steve Jackson
Date: 1983

Contents:

  • 8"x14" rulesheet.
  • 27 cards.
  • 1  ziplock bag.
  • 1  "I've been Illuminated" button.

[Details]

 

 
Battlesuit

Designer: Steve Jackson
Date: 1983

Contents:

  • 24pp rulebook (including 4 pages of charts & tables).
  • 21"x32" mapsheet.
  • 4"x4" ziplock bag.
  • 275 three-colour, double-sided counters on 4 sheets.

[Details]

Originally appeared in Space Gamer #59. Although set in the Ogre universe, Battlesuit was a standalone game that was not compatible with either Ogre or G.E.V.. Essentially it recreated individual infantry battles on a much smaller scale than its "parent" games. The cover art was originally from Space Gamer #43.
 
Necromancer

Designer: Allen Varney
Date: 1983

Contents:

  • 24pp rulebook.
  • 17"x11" colour mapsheet.
  • 1 sheet of 112 two-colour, double-sided counters.
  • 2"x3" ziplock bag.

[Details]

Originally appeared in Space Gamer #55.

This game was published with two distinct covers that were otherwise identical. The earlier, colour cover was the same as the cover of Space Gamer #55.

 
The Awful Green Things From Outer Space

Designer: Tom Wham
Date: 1988

Contents:

  • 24pp rulebook.
  • 12" x 21" colour mapboard.
  • 137 colour counters.
  • 2 - 2"x3" ziplock bags.

[Details]

Originally published in Dragon #28. It has also been published in a number of different boxed versions, some of which include the expansion "Outside the Znutar", originally published in Dragon #40. (This Pocket Box version does not include the expansion.) As can be seen in the picture, this game was published in a lime green Pocket Box as well as a regular black one.
 
Boat Wars

Designer: Michael Lee Merritt / David W. Dyche / Gary L. Canterbury / Ken Scott
Date: 1988

Contents:

  • 48pp rulebook.
  • 5"x8" ziplock bag.
  • 2 - 21"x32" map sections.
  • 2  sheets of full-colour counters. (74 counters plus 3 movement keys.)

[Details]

Another Car Wars expansion that introduced boats to the autoduelling world. Also published in a boxed version with additional material.

I owned most of these games when they were first released but over the years I ended up selling/losing all of them. (Although I have always had a copy of Ogre and Illuminati in one form or another.) The inspiration for writing this article was the discovery of Car Wars and Sunday Drivers in a thrift shop. I then decided that I'd satisfy my urge to collect by re-acquiring the entire line.

I was quite surprised at the number of unpunched and shrink-wrapped copies on the open market—I would have thought that 20-year-old games in such condition would be relatively rare. About half of the copies I saw for sale/auction had obviously never been used. (The ease at which I acquired shrink-wrapped copies was something of a blessing in preparing this article as it made confirmation of the components much more reliable.)

Detail showing the "bleeding through" spottiness.

The boxes themselves have held up remarkably well and in most cases appear very nearly new in condition. There were some with varying amounts of warping but in general this was quite minor. The adhesive covers have fared a little worse and about half of the games I've purchased exhibit a certain "spottiness". This seems to be caused by the adhesive bleeding through the label and tends to be more noticeable on the backs (which are mostly white). Still, I'm quite impressed with the durability of these plastic wonders. I deal with used games on a regular basis and it is very common for standard cardboard boxes to have worn and split corners. That these have lasted so well, for so long is remarkable.

Conclusion

At least some of my fascination with this series is due to nostalgia—these games represent a specific time in my life and evoke fond memories. They do tend to show their age though and it's rare that I get a chance to play any of them. The state of the art in gaming has advanced much in 20 years and the Pocket Box Games definitely feel as though they're from another era. Still, the consistency of quality was impressive; Boat Wars is the only one that I'd rate as less than "good" (it was, in my opinion, "a supplement too far"). Ogre, in particular, has stood the test of time and is highly recommended for the Eurogamer who wishes to try his or her hand at a light wargame. It was an impressive line, one that I enjoyed time and again.

Acknowledgments

Most of the information in this article is derived from the games themselves but the following sources were used to confirm things:

  • Space Gamer magazine. Originally started by Metagaming in 1975, it was published from 1980 to 1985 by Steve Jackson Games.
  • The Classic Microgames Museum. Joe Scoleri maintains this site that includes most (if not all) the games published from 1977 through 1987 that can be described as "microgames".
  • http://www.well.com:70/0/Publications/authors/Gareth_Branwyn/gar3.cv
  • The Yahoo group: Microgames.
  • Steffan O'Sullivan's Gameviews.

- Greg Aleknevicus

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